what do you think this is? a word that produces a ton of points in Scrabble? the result of someone getting their finger stuck on the keyboard of a laptop? a joke?
well, you are wrong.
Zzyzx (pronounced “Zye – Zex,” rhyming with Isaac’s) is an unincorporated community, settlement, pseudo town in Southern California.
the settlement is located in San Bernardino County, which is the largest county in the United States in terms of land area. The county is vast, more than 20,000 square miles. the county is larger than 9 states. it is twice the size of Massachusetts, 4 times the size of Connecticut, and 10 times larger than Rhode Island and Delaware.
Zzyzx sits on the edge of the Mojave National Preserve, which I had the pleasure of driving through the other day. the closest big city to Zzyzx is Las Vegas, Nevada, which is 100 miles away.
the Mojave National Preserve is in the Mojave Desert. A National Preserve is an area protected by the National Park Service. It is an area that has all the characteristics normally associated with US National Parks but where certain natural resource-extractive activities such as hunting, mining, and oil/gas exploration and extraction are permitted. the Mojave National Preserve is the third largest in terms of land area of all the National Parks and Preserves in the continental United States.
spending a summer in the California desert teaches you much. one of the insights is that there is more than one desert in California. my home is in the Sonoran Desert. today we are talking about the Mojave Desert. and there is also the Great Basin Desert which Death Valley is a part of. a second insight is that they are quite distinct from each other.
for example, the Mojave Desert and the Mojave National Preserve which sits within the Mojave Desert is the host to the largest forests of Joshua Trees in the world. The better known Joshua Tree National Park is very close to the Coachella Valley and my home, and it lies partly in the Mojave Desert and partly in the Sonoran Desert. no Joshua Trees live in the Sonoran Desert.
in the Mojave National Preserve there are a few pseudo towns or settlements like Zzyzx. Two that I visited are Amboy and Kelso Depot.
what are the characteristics of these settlements? they have no reason for being today. they have less than 10 inhabitants. Amboy does have a filling station. Kelso Depot has an old train station that has been turned into a visitor center for the Preserve and is open three days a week.
they all have US Post Offices, or at least the remnants of same. yes, indeed. I guess that once you get a post office, you never lose it. or something like that.
but the other thing that these communities have in common is a rich history. there was a time when they did have a reason for being. and knowing that history is very interesting.
how did each of these communities get their name?
Kelso, for example, was founded in 1906 when the railroad was completed crossing the desert. it started as a railroad depot. how did it get its name? three men who lived and worked there put their names in hat, and the name that was drawn was John Kelso’s, who was warehouse worker. therefore the town was named after him!
Zzyzx, on the other hand, has an even crazier story on how it got its name.
Prior to 1944 it was known as Soda Springs, but then an LA radio evangelist named Curtis H. Springer, a self-proclaimed minister and to some a quack doctor. After concluding that the mineral springs were the ideal location for a health resort, he filed a mining claim on a 12,800 acre parcel of what were public lands. He named it “Zzyzx Mineral Springs and Health Resort,” and touted it as “the last word in health” and the last word in the English language — a gimmick so it would be the last listing in any directory.
he apparently was into lexicography. that is a new word for me. how about you? it means the practice of compiling dictionaries.
what is striking to me as I traverse the deserts of Southern California this summer is how recent this history is. and yet how much these places have changed. just over 100 years ago these locations and spots were quite different. people like us were doing quite different things then, and facing quite different challenges. this was only 100+ years ago. 3 generations ago. not that long ago.